Consumers flock to buy eggs from `cage-free' hens

June 11, 2006|By MARNI GOLDBERG | MARNI GOLDBERG,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- When Peggy Taylor goes grocery shopping, she can't always find what she wants at the store around the corner. So the 62-year-old Washington resident frequents Whole Foods Market, where she knows she'll find "cage-free" eggs.

Taylor makes a habit of purchasing eggs produced by hens that are not confined to cages but can roam freely inside barns or warehouses.

"There's been more publicity about how stock animals are handled," she said. "It hasn't made me a vegetarian yet, but it might."

The concerns of shoppers such as Taylor are part of a growing public interest in where food comes from - whether beef cows were fed on grass, whether asparagus came from local farmers, how much geese suffer in the production of foie gras.

When it comes to eggs, animal-welfare activists are pressuring grocery chains to stop selling those from caged hens. In the cages that house most poultry, they say, birds cannot engage in such natural behaviors as nesting, perching, dust bathing or even spreading their wings.

"When you cram so many birds into a cage that they are unable to spread their wings, it's an economic and moral shortcut," said Paul Shapiro, who leads the Factory Farming Campaign of the Humane Society of the United States.

Egg producers respond that keeping chickens in cages is cheaper for consumers; conventional eggs typically cost about a third as much as cage-free ones and are equally nutritious, they say. Producers also argue that caging helps keep birds disease-free.

A Humane Society campaign to encourage cage-free policies appears to be having some success. In 2005, Whole Foods Market, Wild Oats Natural Marketplace, Earth Fare and Jimbo's Naturally agreed to sell only cage-free eggs, which now account for an estimated 2 percent to 5 percent of the market. In May, Ohio State University became one of about 90 schools promising to reduce their use of caged-bird eggs in dining facilities. America Online and Google have stopped using such eggs in their cafeterias.

Sonja Tuitele, spokeswoman for Wild Oats, said the corporation has always preferred to sell cage-free eggs, and about 90 percent of its stock always had been of that variety. Last year the natural- and organic-foods retailer formalized its cage-free policy.

Trader Joe's, meanwhile, has agreed that all its brand-name eggs would come only from cage-free birds, though the store still sells conventional eggs. Cage-free eggs are sold alongside conventional eggs at many other stores, including Wal-Mart.

The number of cage-free eggs sold each week is hard to pin down. But with more consumption of such eggs, some of the nation's producers have adjusted. Among those is Radlo Foods, a Massachusetts-based corporation that has converted 15 percent of its production to cage-free facilities.

David Radlo, chief executive, said his caged and cage-free hens are fed the same, given the same vaccinations and tested for the same diseases. There is no nutritional difference between the two varieties of eggs, he said.

Donald McNamara, executive director of the Egg Nutrition Center in Washington, an industry-funded group, said there are benefits to caged egg production and that a move to more controlled environments for raising hens took place 50 to 60 years ago.

"People aren't going in and out, rodents aren't going in and out, wild birds aren't going in and out," he said. "Those birds aren't going to be in contact with wild animals. That bio-security gives you a much lower incidence of diseases that the bird can contract," he said.

In some northern European countries where there is more cage-free and free-range egg production, birds have been placed back inside cages to protect against avian influenza, McNamara said.

Others in the egg industry point to one another benefit to caged production: cost. According to recent reports by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average price of a conventional Grade A extra-large dozen was 89 cents, while a dozen extra-large cage-free brown eggs averaged $2.50.

Marni Goldberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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